One of the little-noted facts about the Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is that he is the country’s first Orthodox head of government; moreover, religious Zionists are his Yamina party’s key constituency. Unlike Ḥaredim, members of this heterogeneous group serve in the military, generally embrace secular education and work, and, most saliently, wear knitted kippot. Matan Kahana, another Yamina member and the current minister of religious affairs, perhaps embodies this group’s ethos, which can be seen in his attempts to reform the chief rabbinate—efforts that have attracted intra-Orthodox controversy and in a roundabout away led to the current coalition crisis. Matti Friedman writes:
Kahana came to the attention of many Israelis for the first time last June, after the formation of the new government, amid a furious day in the Knesset during which the Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties, shocked to find themselves removed from power after twelve years, shouted down the coalition’s speakers and disrupted attempts by the new government to present its platform. . . . The ultra-Orthodox MKs had been shouting at Bennett and Kahana to “take off their kippahs.” At the podium, a furious Kahana directed a startling attack at one of the most vociferous of those lawmakers, Moshe Gafni.
The religious-secular fight has been going on since the creation of the state and is familiar to everyone here, but Kahana was saying something different. He wasn’t speaking against religion—he was saying that he was religion, that his religious Zionism was as authentic as the non-Zionist stringency of the ultra-Orthodox, if not more so. He wasn’t throwing out the rabbinic bureaucracy. He was saying the wrong rabbis were in charge.
Kahana is not a liberal. He’s a different kind of religious conservative. “Israel is an Orthodox country,” he told me, and will remain that way in the absence of a wave of new immigrants from liberal Jewish denominations. A compromise to allow non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall should have passed years ago, he said, but he’s not going to be the one to pass it now, because doing so would endanger the coalition’s fragile hold on power. “I don’t want to disappoint my Reform brothers, and I’m choosing my words carefully—my Reform brothers,” he said. “But I’m an Orthodox Jew, a conservative.”
Part of this insistence is an attempt to protect his flank from attempts to portray him as a closet liberal intent on undermining traditional Judaism. But it’s mostly genuine. His reforms are not aimed at weakening the Jewish DNA of the state, but the opposite. He wants a more Jewish Israel. “The less we force Judaism,” he said, “the more people will choose it.”